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Raid hauls in tagging suspect

Times Staff Writer

The “Guser” tag is etched into the windows of MTA buses, spray-painted on a local storefront and printed on stickers “slapped” on poles and utility boxes in South Los Angeles.

It was smeared on the curb in front of the home of Gustavo Romero, 23, when sheriff’s deputies arrived Wednesday to arrest him during an early morning raid at 77th and Main streets. Inside, they even found the tag scrawled across Romero’s mattress.

“This proves they’ll tag just about anywhere they go or live,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Augie Pando, supervisor of the department’s Transit Services Bureau anti-graffiti operations, who described Romero as one of Los Angeles’ most prolific taggers.

Fueled in part by the opportunity to advertise their work on MySpace.com and YouTube.com, taggers are bigger than ever, with 4,274 incidents reported in sheriff’s territory in 2006, up from 2,083 in 2002, authorities said.

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Romero is the ninth member of a multiracial tagging crew called Ur Property Next arrested on suspicion of felony vandalism in the last two years, and a particularly active one, detectives said. An arrest warrant named him in 72 acts of vandalism, resulting in $108,000 of property damage.

“We have to come up with something bigger than prolific,” Pando said. “That word doesn’t describe adequately the amount of tagging this guy’s done.”

Added Deputy Devin Vanderlaan “There’s a point at which you stop counting.”

Like many of the new generation of taggers, Ur Property Next is multiracial and multimedia, spray-painting, etching with drill bits and leaving stickers with their UPN mark around the city.

“It is all about spreading their name,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Estrada.

Before dawn Wednesday, deputies gathered in a trailer south of the 105 Freeway for a pre-raid briefing. On the table were scones and blueberry crumble, baked by Pando the night before.

One deputy armed himself with a battering ram, but it wasn’t needed. After a couple of shouts and few knocks at Romero’s front door, his sister and her child appeared; a shirtless, sleepy-eyed man, later identified as Romero’s father, soon came to the door, followed by Romero, dressed in a white sleeveless T-shirt and shorts. He was taken into custody.

Later, the father told deputies he was glad they’d come for his son, who he described as out of control, according to investigators. The father said he had tried to throw Romero out.

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In the room where Romero slept, “Guser” and “UPN” were scrawled on the mattress, and the ceiling had been crudely painted over with a roller. That was evidence, deputies said, someone had tried to blot out other tags.

As deputies searched the drawers in the bedroom and basement, they uncovered a paint-filled pen, papers with what looked like practice tags and driver’s licenses bearing names other than Romero’s.

Sheriff’s detectives say they catch taggers on film or video from cameras on trains or buses, and sometimes in the act; four skateboarders were arrested Tuesday in a train station elevator that had just been marked up. Pando’s deputies arrested the juvenile tagger Zoner after he was photographed scribbling on a bus with the mayor and the school superintendent on board. Taggers who face a stack of charges sometimes seek leniency by naming others.

Romero could draw a lengthy prison term if convicted on multiple felony charges, deputies said. Fellow UPN member Bryant Mangum, 27, aka “Sight,” was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison after his guilty plea last year to more than 45 cases of vandalism. In many tagging cases, detectives said, the evidence is overwhelming.

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“We had one guy on the Internet telling everyone to not keep items connected with tagging in their house and guess what? When we searched his home there was evidence everywhere,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Estrada. “They think they’ll never be caught.”

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richard.winton@latimes.com


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